Donnie Iris says he's keeping his expectations low for his new album, although one gets a sense he's ready for a revival.
"Ellwood City," the first all-new album in nine years from the Pittsburgh-based rocker, will drop Thursday.
He's got a few shows booked, including a free listening party Thursday at The Wedge in Austintown, and a June 10 concert at Chevrolet Amphitheatre in Pittsburgh.
But, at least publicly, he's keeping his excitement in check.
"I don't know what will happen [after the album is released]," he said in a phone interview last week. "I just want to keep recording. I love the new songs. I guess we're just obsessed. We're keeping the band motivated and getting our product out there. If it catches on, that would be great."
Although radio stations in Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania plan to play songs from the new record — including Youngstown's WNCD 93-FM — getting uniform national airplay probably won't be easy, given the highly-structured state of corporate radio.
But Iris remains popular in pockets throughout North America. "K-Rock, a rock station in Edmonton, Canada, called the other day for a copy of the new album," said Iris.
Donnie Iris and the Cruisers reached the national charts about 10 times in the '80s. Songs like "Ah! Leah!," "Love Is Like A Rock" and "Sweet Merilee" still get airplay and have become familiar to a whole new generation of fans.
That familiar Donnie I sound is back on "Ellwood City," which should give the disc a running start. And those omnipresent Armstrong Cable commercials can't hurt, either ("We just shot a whole new batch," said Iris).
Opening track "Little Black Dress" could be a single right out of the gate, with its power chords and tough Steel City trash talk ("I hate any man who looks at you ...").
"River of Love" is vintage Donnie with a slinky verse that gives way to a horn-fluorished chorus.
"Love Me With the Light On" does a slow burn and features the layered background vocals common on early Cruisers albums.
The blue-collar ode "You Got My Body" subversively uses an assembly-line beat to deliver a message to the boss ("Do you got my soul? No no no").
Perhaps the strongest track is the Latin-influenced "Just Go Tango." Its sizzling dance rhythm builds to a transcendent climax, with Iris crooning in Spanish.
Then there is the title track.
To the outside world, Iris is from Pittsburgh. To Pittsburghers, Iris is from Beaver Falls (the 62-year-old still co-owns a mortgage company just down the river in Aliquippa, Pa.).
But King Cool grew up in Ellwood City.
So, what's behind the song?
"We wanted a love song, and I wanted to pay tribute to Ellwood City," said Iris. "It's my hometown. It's where I grew up and went to school and learned about falling in love and getting rejected. We put together a story about Ellwood City."
Keyboardist and lyricist Mark Avsec penned the bittersweet "Ellwood City." With wrenching simplicity, it tells the iconic American story of young lovers in a small town that just isn't big enough for one of them ("I knew that you would die before you ever lived if you stayed in Ellwood City").
Youngstown has always been one of Iris' home bases, and the Cruisers had become a summertime tradition at the now-defunct B&B Backstage. "I was bummed when the B&B went under," said Iris.
Although the band won't play live at Thursday's listening party in Austintown, those on hand will be the first anywhere to hear the new album.
"We're going to play the new album on the sound system at The Wedge," said Iris. "Fans, friends and anybody can hang out with us."
Cornell Bogdan and Casey Malone of WNCD 93-FM will host the affair, which will include appetizers.
A sneak preview of the video for "Little Black Dress" — which features the Cleveland Cavaliers Girls dancing in the aforementioned apparel — will also be shown.
Donnie Iris and the Cruisers will also be in concert at Judge Morley Pavilion in Mill Creek Park, Youngstown, on July 9, and at Buffalo Hollow, a new 3,000-capacity outdoor venue off Route 170, about 15 miles south of Poland, on Aug. 12.
The Morley Pavilion show is free.
For tickets to the Buffalo Hollow show, which will be part of a weekend music festival, go to www.buffalohollow.net; call (888) 819-7705; or go to Beight Monuments, U.S. Route 224 at Southern Boulevard, Boardman.